CARBONDALE — The SIU baseball team will open at Jacksonville (Alabama) State Feb. 16-18 at a brand-new stadium.
The Salukis unveiled their 56-game schedule Tuesday. They will host 27 games at Itchy Jones Stadium, including weekend series against Illinois and UC Irvine.
"It's exciting and challenging," SIU coach Ken Henderson said. "Scheduling is not an easy thing to do; but I believe the quality of our non-conference opponents will put us in a position to make the NCAA Tournament if we take care of business."
The Salukis' opener against the Gamecocks will be the debut of JSU's Rudy Abbott Field.
"This is a good opening test for us," Henderson said. "Jacksonville State is an outstanding program. Coach (Jim) Case does a great job, and it will be a challenge playing them on the road. They are also opening a new $7.5 million facility. We're going to be the first games in that stadium, and I'm sure it will be a big weekend for them."
In addition to the Gamecocks, SIU has a challenging non-conference schedule. The Salukis travel to North Florida and Tennessee Tech. The Salukis host Northern Illinois (9-11), Illinois (March 16-18), and UC Irvine (March 23-25).
Tennessee Tech was an NCAA Tournament qualifier last year, and North Florida is 117-58 (.669) over the last three seasons. Illinois was a national seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2015, and UC Irvine advanced to the College World Series in 2014.
"North Florida and UC Irvine may not be household names in college sports; but in college baseball, they are outstanding programs," Henderson said. "(UC Irvine) is one of the best programs on the West Coast. To get them to come to Carbondale, is a huge thing for us. They were in the College World Series in 2014, and Coach (Mike) Gillespie is one of the most successful coaches in the country."
Home-opening weekend is March 2-4 against Louisiana-Monroe at Itchy Jones Stadium. That series marks a stretch of four-straight home weekends.
Southern has mid-week home-and-home series with Austin Peay, Belmont, Southeast Missouri State, Murray State and Arkansas State. SIU will host Eastern Illinois (April 10) and travel to Saint Louis (May 15) and Illinois (May 1) for mid-week matchups.
Missouri Valley Conference play begins March 30 at Illinois State. The Salukis host MVC newcomer Valparaiso April 6-8.
"The Valley is always good," Henderson said. "It doesn't matter where you open or who you open with; you have to play them all, and it's going to be a challenging year in the league."
SIU will take two trips to Dallas, first for a three-game series against Dallas Baptist April 13-15 and also for the 2018 MVC tournament May 23-26 at Horner Park.
SIU heads to Evansville April 27-29 before returning home against Indiana State May 4-6. A trip to Missouri State May 11-13 is the final road trip of the regular season. The Bears advanced to the NCAA Tournament Super Regionals last season.
Southern hosts Bradley May 17-19 to close the regular season before heading to Texas for the MVC tournament. The NCAA Tournament starts the following week.
SIU returns several key contributors from last year's team. Starting pitcher Michael Baird, first baseman Logan Blackfan, second baseman Connor Kopach and closer Ryan Netemeyer have all earned All-MVC honors in their careers. Kopach and Netemeyer earned the honor last season.
"This has probably been one of the more enjoyable falls I've ever had because of the make-up of the team," Henderson said. "These kids take care of business and practice extremely hard. We're a very fast club, the fastest club I think I've coached in 34 years. I think that leads to an exciting brand of baseball. We will fly around the park, steal some bases, and move the baseball offensively. Our pitching staff should throw a lot of strikes and allow our great defense to make plays behind them."